Toni Erdmann (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Thunderbird Releasing) Running Time: 163 minutes approx.
There comes a point in everyone’s life when one is publicly embarrassed by their parents but is the issue with them or their parent – especially if this occurs during late adulthood? Can this damage a relationship irreparably or force a showdown that leads to a better mutual understanding of each other?
Retired music teacher divorcee Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) still has a mischievous streak within him, manifest in his fondness for creating characters to play pranks on people. When his beloved dog dies, Winfried decides to catch up with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a humourless business consultant working in Bucharest.
On a whim, Winfried takes a flight to Bucharest to surprise Ines, but she is too busy trying to woo important clients to have any time for her father. So, Winfried invents a life coach named Toni Erdmann, complete with false teeth and shaggy wig, to infiltrate Ines’s business circles and spend more time with her.
It’s a plot that reads like something for an Adam Sandler film but Toni Erdmann is definitely not akin to his style, perhaps for a few shared moments of puerile humour, designed for entirely different reasons. Writer-director Maren Ade is firmly entrenched in the arthouse cinema camp, as if the near-three hour run time wasn’t enough of a clue.
The pervasive dark humour is heavy with pathos and involves exploiting the discomfort and awkwardness that an esoteric or arcane sense of humour usually incurs. One can’t help but make a vague comparison to the toe-curling exploits in the first series of I’m Alan Partridge (the “zombie” scene comes to mind) but Winfried doesn’t have to explain the joke or his character to anyone.
On that point it is not as if Erdmann is a comic character, although his resemblance to a more aware and less slovenly version of Sir Les Patterson (ask your parents) with nary an eye batted at his awful teeth and unkempt hair. But his quietly gregarious and confident personality allows him to charm all that he meets and the fantasy becomes a reality, one that Ines feels too embarrassed to expose.
Having got his feet under the table so to speak, Erdmann now accompanies Ines on her business meetings in an associate/guru role, with the odd occasion seeing Ines play Erdmann’s secretary as the ruse to endear himself to others gets too deep. As frosty and uptight as Ines is before her colleagues and clients, Erdmann is enigmatic and oddly enthralling, personality traits Ines could well do with improving on.
There is no traditional turning point as such for the relationship in the sense of father and daughter reaching an emotional epiphany and tearfully hugging it out; they do enjoy a long overdue embrace but under ironic and bittersweet circumstances. It is a slow and frustrating process of Ines understanding and accepting her father’s idiosyncrasies which reveal an empathetic side to him that earns him respect on a grass roots level.
Ines is the closest thing to a caricature as a single, thirty-something businesswoman working all the hours to be a success and have no life to show for it, a hackneyed stereotype propagated in many a romance yarn. What Ade does with her script is use Ines as a conduit to explore the sense of ambition and greed among the modern young businessmen and women, putting money before happiness.
Not that Ines isn’t short of activity, but drugs, raves and soulless (and perverted) sex with colleague Tim (Trystan Pütter) don’t agree with her. But what is missing is the ability to treat people equally regardless of status, and Erdmann’s ability to connect with non-managerial staff and lowly workers is a key facet Ines is missing which she begins to realise, starting with her meek but adorable assistant Anca (Ingrid Bisu).
Again, the clichés are there in abundance but it is what Ade does with them that makes this such an worthy, if frequently painful watch. Two key scenes stand out that highlight the abject embarrassment of life, one of which is born out of Ines finally channelling her father’s flair for spontaneity when she can’t find a dress for her birthday party so she declares it a “Naked Party”. Trepidation and insecurity abound, this is awkwardness with a capital “A.
The other scene is far simpler yet more subtle – in the early stages Winfried is leaving Bucharest and Ines says her goodbyes to him while waiting for the lift; there is an interminable wait for it arrive, both not knowing what to do or say in the wake of their premature farewell. I defy anyone not to squirm or feel their buttocks clench during this highly uncomfortable moment.
For all the moments of genius or potency that stand out in this film, there are many that could have been excised to help make a smoother narrative and put less stress on our backsides. Film length is always a contentious and polarising issue and I am no stranger to long films but appreciate them more if the time is used wisely, and this is an instance I feel Ade could have been a little more selective with her content.
Ade’s direction is unfussy and the camera remains at a safe distance, allowing the two leads to work unabated. Peter Simonischek is a marvel at adapting to the duality his character(s) demands, keeping Winfried and Erdmann as separate as humanly possible throughout. Sandra Hüller is the film’s driving force however, in an extraordinary baring of her soul as a women verging on an insular fate finally realising what dads are for.
I will confess to not finding Toni Erdmann hilarious as others have and wished it was much shorter, but as an important and potent emotional gut punch piece of slice-of-life cinema I am onboard with what Ade has achieved here.
And thanks to Thunderbird Releasing for subtitling the English dialogue for us hard of hearing folk. If only more UK distributors were so considerate.
German Language 5.1 DTS-HD
German Language 2.0 DTS-HD
English SDH Subtitles
Director and Cast Interviews
Kukeri In Bucharest
Kukeri In Cannes
Rating – ****
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